Game of Thrones: HCE

Psychiatric TimesVol 33 No 8
Volume 33
Issue 8

Game of Thrones is the first of 5 novels comprising A Tale of Ice and Fire, by George M.M. Martin. The series has captivated millions of fans worldwide. I’ve unexpectedly joined them.

The Media on My Mind

My pleasure in fine fiction runs parallel with the guilty pleasures of lower-brow “genre” writing-military history . . . hardboiled crime . . . especially horror and science fiction. I particularly admire sci-fi that isn’t greatly written but draws you totally into its world (eg, Frank Herbert’s Dune).

The “sword and sorcery” genre of the past few decades doesn’t appeal to me. I risk rack, thumbscrew, and flames by confessing my absolute immunity to the charms of The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit series. I just cannot wrap my brain around feisty little men with hairy toes.

Game of Thrones is the first of 5 novels comprising A Tale of Ice and Fire, by George M.M. Martin. The series has captivated millions of fans worldwide. I’ve unexpectedly joined them.

Martin’s opus essentially is a riveting anthropological exploration of myriad imaginary cultures on a presumably Earth-like world. He parses about a dozen in depth; touches upon others en passant; anatomizing group and family structure, patterns of kinship and inheritance; dissecting politics, law, theology, customs of nobility and street. A fictive society’s history-recent, ancient, and mythic-figures prominently.

Game of Thrones’ time frame corresponds to Terran late medieval period through the early Renaissance. Cultures elsewhere on Martin’s globe roughly resemble Eastern, Asian, and African societies during the same period.

The novels are set in 2 continents and their respective islands. Westeros is a larger simulacrum of the Italian boot, extending from sunlit south to frigid north. Essos, located approximately at a right angle to Westeros, is possibly bigger. Much of it is unmapped and sub-tropical, with darker populations.

The diverse peoples of both continents evolved from several ancestral cultures. A single ancestry is inferred. Over countless ages, empire after empire has flourished, then crumbled into the millennial dust. Some remnants remain, particularly in religious belief.

Westeros’ perception of Essos echoes the exaggerated or confabulated Eurocentric accounts of the East’s exotic “otherness” by adventurers like Marco Polo. Westeros mirrors Europe’s age of chivalry (particularly in England, France, and the Italian city-states), replete with high tournaments and low intrigue. After ages of devastating warfare, an uneasy confederation-the Seven Kingdoms-was patched together, ruled over the last 1000 years by House Targaryen. (Houses vary in land, wealth, and power).

The monarchy’s perennial shakiness is exemplified by an Iron Throne, forged from swords that can pierce a king’s flesh. His rule depends on the fealty of the major Houses, owed allegiance in turn by the “banner men” of lesser ones. Game of Thrones begins a decade or so after the last mad, bad Targaryen king was assassinated during a rebellion led by Lord Robert of House Baratheon, and his triumphant accession to the monarchy.

Conspiracy, treachery, and murder are quotidian among the Houses. Intermittent savage warfare stems from competing claims to the monarchy based on lineage, further bulwarked by dynastic marriage. Succession is perennially suspect, for bloodlines have become inextricably mixed over centuries. The “legitimate” royal gene pool has been mingled with the chromosomes of commoners and bastards. The latter are sometimes legitimized by royal decree or less honorable means.

Later novels explore the cultures of Essos’ cities and islands, highlighting their “otherness.” Many are quasi-Venetian mercantile oligarchies. Shrewd diplomacy is preferred to warfare. Ethics are lax, morals even looser. Slavery is essential to their economies and pleasures. The Essosi look down on Westeros and its obsession with chivalric honor with elitist disdain.

Barbarians threaten civilization on both continents. The Dothraki-Mongol-like tribes of nomadic horsemen-pillage Essos’ cities when they aren’t preying on each other. Westeros’ “Wildling” tribes correspond to Picts, Goths, Huns, etc. They inhabit Westeros’ deep north; their raiding checked by a titanic wall manned by the Night Watch. It is composed of bastards, criminals, dishonored or second son noblemen, and other dregs of society, usually led by virtuous gentry.

Fantasy fiction often weds the supernatural and quotidian reality, often clumsily. Martin succeeds impressively here. The HBO series is even more arresting due to sophisticated special effects like modelling, green-screening, and cutting-edge computer-generated imagery.

The iconic creatures of Martin’s “magic unrealism” are dragons and “White Walkers.” Dragons were successfully harnessed by the conquering Targaryens, then became extinct, possibly as a result of taming.

White Walkers are zombie hordes that emerge from Westeros’ polar reaches during winters that can last a millennium. (Summer’s length is also unpredictable.) Their last invasion was crushed, but the specter of their wintry return always looms. (The Wall was originally built to protect the Seven Kingdoms from them.)

The Ice and Fire tales teem with compelling-often appalling-events and characters. The first book traces the fortunes of 3 great Houses. Stalwart Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark, his wife, and 5 children live in Winterfell, the northern keep of House Stark. One son, Jon Snow, is illegitimate (names like Snow or Flower denote bastardy). King’s Landing, Westeros’ capital, is home to House Lannister, the wealthiest and most powerful of the nobility. Ruthless, cunning Lord Tywin and his children are key Lannisters. The children share stunning features, dark souls-and an incestuous relationship: Cersei, a supreme schemer, and Jaime, a no less amoral master swordsman. Lovelessly married to King Robert, Cersei continues bedding Jaime. The third is Tyrion, a despised dwarf whose joking dissolute facade conceals fierce intelligence and an appealing decency.

House Targaryen’s sole survivor is Princess Daenerys, a lovely timid waif, exiled by being married off to a Dothraki chieftain.

In classic epic fashion, the novels and HBO series begin in medias res. King Robert, declined into drunken impotence, summons his old comrade-in-arms, Ned Stark, to become his “hand”-an unwilling stand-in. After Robert’s death, Cersei declares herself regent for an odious son. She’s the power behind the Iron Throne-and Lord Tywin Lannister’s puppet. Ned Stark is executed for alleged treason after discovering that the father of Cersei’s children was her brother, not Robert.

The subsequent 4 novels trace the fortunes of the Lannisters and the exiled Stark children. The author uses their separate fates to broaden his canvas of Westeros and portray Essos cultures. After her husband dies, Princess Daenerys becomes the tribe’s queen. Unexpectedly charismatic, possessing 3 dragon hatchlings, she begins her quest to retake the Iron Throne, and restore just rule.

Substantial scholarship explores the problems of adapting book and drama to film, and remaking a film from its original. I’ve elsewhere written that most adaptations and remakes are tepid clones, or that they indulge in a curious Oedipal competition with the original by overwhelming it with Lalaland wretched excess. The worthiest adaptations (there aren’t many) capture and expand on the original’s intentions. HBO’s Game of Thrones exemplifies my category of an “honorable” remake.

Martin has finished 5 books: a sixth is being written. By the fifth, the author had unfortunately created so many branches to the Saga as to render it increasingly tedious. HBO’s adaptation-spearheaded by co-producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss-skillfully prunes extraneous narrative and characters. There are 5 major plots (a number open to argument) and at least as many minor ones. Their seamless blend from one episode to the next is exceptionally attractive, due to fine scripting and an adroit use of cinematic technique (eg, the subtle differences in color choice and saturation between a storyline and its locale).

Psychoanalytic critique

Game of Thrones provides a huge playing field for the Freudian psychoanalytic critic. The series is ripe with sibling rivalry, parricide, and filicide on both sides of Oedipus’ complex. One discovers a plethora of couch-friendly psychopathology as well as every defense mechanism Anna Freud came up with: introjection, projection, identification with the aggressor, and so forth.

Several major characters initially in their early teens undergo the pubertal rite-de-passage described by Peter Blos, Erik Erikson, and other Freudian life-cycle theorists. The identity crises of Princess Daenerys, Arya and Sansa Stark, and Jon Snow are compellingly dramatic, and particularly crucial to the overall series. The characters’ psychological transformation is accentuated by the physical changes of several young actors over 6 seasons.

Carl Jung’s work provides a quite different analytic perspective on Game of Thrones. The series’ prime Jungian concepts include the collective unconscious, the personal and cultural significance of myths, dreams, archetypes, and cycles.

Game of Thrones embraces Jung’s theory of an intricate reciprocal relationship between the individual’s destiny, inner psychic and cultural worlds, and even the cosmos entire. One finds many parallel-in Jungian terms “synchronous”-events that turn out to be uncannily linked. Martin drew heavily from Earth’s mythic well-Homeric epics; Norse, Viking, and Icelandic sagas; Arthurian legend; and Shakespeare’s “War of the Roses” histories.

The chivalric Westerosi and the bedouin Dothraki have radically different customs and beliefs. But an underlying Jungian collectivity grounds every culture’s quest to fathom its origins; how its people should be living in the present, as well as whatever afterlife is believed to exist.

Jungian archetypes inform Westeros’ and Essos’ cornucopia of theologies-manifested in the “old” religions’ nature worship of eldritch Druidic Grove and Eternal Sea. Archetypes are most evident in the Seven Kingdom’s “Faith of the Seven,” which pays homage to Gods like The Mother, The Father, The Crone, The Warrior, etc.

Jung conceived that cycles were fundamental to personal and social existence-revealed in unconscious symbolism, artistic and theological imagery (such as the mandala). He particularly drew upon the work of 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico, which posited the universality of cycles.

Many of Essos’ societies, such as Meereen’s, are as old as Egyptian dynasties, and its members, free or enslaved, believe their status quo is eternal. Westerosi cultures implicitly endorse Vico’s and Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal return”: all that has happened before will happen again-rise and fall of empire, blessed summer yielding to dreadful winter, etc.

Resurrection of the dead through spiritual/magical means, to evil, benevolent, or obscure purpose, occurs throughout Game of Thrones. Ancient myths with omnipotent heroes are received truths. It is poignant that Martin’s characters are generally unaware that they themselves are becoming the stuff of their distant future’s myths as we watch.

I neither claim that nor know whether Martin has read Freud or Jung. Putting Game of Thrones or any other work of art on the couch always should be a modest endeavor: one strives only to enhance the reader/viewer’s understanding and enjoyment. There is infinitely more to art-or to patients for that matter-than the analysis thereof.

To account for Game of Thrones’ enormous popularity, one rather looks to Martin’s writing skill and fertile imagination; and the HBO series’ marvelous meld of cinematic narrative, art, and technology.

Actors like Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), and Kit Harington (Jon Snow) inhabit their characters so believably that one feels a sharp sense of loss if and when Martin takes them off the board. The Saga stridently opposes prevailing mainstream cinema practice. One will not find the facile happy ending of a super-hero franchise in Game of Thrones. Virtuous intentions have uncertain or disastrous outcomes. The good often fail, sometimes die, while the bad sleep well.

Jungian thought strongly informed James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Arguably the greatest novel never read, it’s an immense sprawl of free associations, outrageous puns, dauntingly obscure historical/literary references-and cycles within cycles.

Joyce’s hero is a Dublin pub keeper who dreams the entire past, present, and future of humanity in one tumultuous night. One of the character’s many names is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. The acronym HCE constantly recurs throughout the Wake: at one point it mutates into Here Comes Everybody. To HBO’s immense credit, it has recreated Martin’s amazing multiverse as an incomparable-and totally available-Joycean HCE.

The nineteenth century fiction of writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins was often serialized in magazines of the day. Collins’ prime directive for serial success was-“Keep ‘em waiting!!” Every key plotline and cycle in Game of Thrones converges in the final episode of Season 6, the best cliffhanger yet. We wait with a distinctive mixture of taut expectation, hope, and foreboding to discover who survives the White Walkers’ bone-chilling army-and who will rule the Iron Throne.


Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD

From childhood on, my mother nagged me about becoming a doctor. She took me to the movies too. A lot. She was a true movie maniac, loved Joan Crawford boo-hoos, hard-boiled Bogart noirs, Danny Kaye laugh riots, MGM biblical extravaganzas. She was extravagantly addicted to horror and science-fiction movies. Other kids’ first movie was Bambi; I saw Bride of Frankenstein. Highbrow-wise, she and my dad also took me to a cornucopia of concerts, museums, and dramas.

By my teens I wanted to become a writer, indeed a film writer. Nope-Dora warned me that writers starved in garrets. “Become a doctor, and then you can be a writer. Just because I’m your mother, doesn’t mean I’m wrong!!!” And that’s pretty much what happened. (I quote the second line frequently when patients are in a parent-bashing mode.)

A Ford Foundation scholarship to Columbia College required a double major-liberal arts and in my case, pre-med courses. I wasn’t wild about the latter, but I was much taken first by the beauty of Freud’s writing, then by much of his theory.

I received my MD at Cornell, interned at New York Hospital (internal medicine and neurology); did my psychiatric residency at NYU-Bellevue. A 2-year stint as an army psychiatrist followed. Whatever DSM-5 (whoops, ICD-10) ailment I hadn’t encountered at Bellevue, I saw in the service. Lot of Axis II stuff, patient-wise, and at the officers’ club.

Then returned to the Big Apple and psychiatric practice specializing in adolescents of all ages; analytic training, teaching in Albert Einstein’s psychiatric department; running adolescent wards when they weren’t running me; then years of teaching (adolescent psychiatry and medical humanities).

In the Army, I had time to pick up my writing again, published psychiatric articles in the usual journals (on general, adolescent, military, and forensic psychiatry); published 3 books for adolescents about drug abuse, psychotherapy, and emotional illness in the family.

Since college, I’d been taken by what Freud called “applied analysis” of the arts. Early on, I found that psychoanalysts had liberally practiced “applied analysis” on virtually every art and artist with the notable exception of cinema. A slim literature by clinicians ranged from drearily simplistic to reasonably sophisticated-but only from a deep psychological perspective. What was starkly lacking was gut knowledge about cinema, aesthetics, technology, industry history, etc.

Unbeknownst to me, psychoanalytic film study had become a cottage industry in academia by the ‘70s. Aided by curricula furnished by new friends in academia, I eventually found this literature was impressive vis-a-vis every technical/historical/aesthetic aspect of film. Unfortunately, the psychoanalysis practiced in the halls of ivy was universally Lacanian. And much of that work was-to be kind-arcane.

So, working under the assumption that movies did not have to be fed through Lacan’s tortuous machine, I began writing from a more intelligible analytic perspective, guided by Freudian thought at its best as well as the work of Sullivan, Horney, the English object relations cadre, and Jung (in small doses). I’ve been writing in this mode for decades, as well as lecturing to lay and academic audiences; and making the occasional TV and audio appearance.

I don’t have a CV as such, but the reader will find a sampling of stuff on my website,, and spread across the ‘net. My 2 collections-The Movies on Your Mind and Screen Memories-are in libraries, and still available for farthings on the usual websites. (Be assured I gain nothing from sales.)

I wish to acknowledge the invaluable help of my wife, Sharon Messitte-herself a therapist-my 3 sons-all of them writers, and not one a doctor; and many, many colleagues and friends in film and psychoanalytic scholarship.

And, wherever life takes you, remember the school motto of Faber College (Animal House): KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD.


Addendum-Martin’s debt to Joyce is unknown, but I deem it no accident that a prominent castle in Westeros is called Riverrun-which is also the Wake’s first word, continuing the gigantic novel’s last sentence. An eternal return if ever there was.

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